A Cheektowaga man is suing Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and a sheriff's deputy for the return of $80,110 cash and a 2012 luxury vehicle, both seized from him in a traffic stop Aug. 20.
Buffalo attorney Robert M. Goldstein said his client in the lawsuit, James L. Terrell, was not charged with a crime.
"He wasn't given any tickets, and he hasn't been given any traffic infractions since that day," Goldstein told The Buffalo News.
According to the lawsuit, Terrell was pulled over about 1 p.m. at an unspecified location in Buffalo, after which the sheriff's deputy forcibly removed Terrell from his vehicle – a 2012 Infiniti QX56, currently worth about $25,000. The deputy seized the car and then searched it, according to the lawsuit.
A man with Terrell's name and date of birth was convicted of drug-related charges in Pennsylvania in 2012, court records from Susquehanna County indicate. But that record appears to have played no role in the decision to seize the property.
"The vehicle was stopped. They could not find an excuse to search it. They then seized it," Goldstein said.
"After they seized it, I believe they conducted a search and found the money in the car that he was using to start a bar.When we requested it back, they said they had forwarded it on to the Customs and Immigration Service," he added.
U.S. Customs is in charge of forfeiture proceedings for the federal government.
Federal law lets police agencies seize cash they believe is ill-gotten and then seek federal court permission to keep the money once the authorities establish a basis for their suspicion, or probable cause. Often, that involves indications from a drug-sniffing dog that the currency bears traces of illegal drugs, a review of such cases shows.
With civil forfeiture, owners need not be convicted or even charged but can still lose cash, cars, homes and other property, says the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, libertarian law firm based in Virginia that seeks to limit government power. The law enforcement agencies that seized the property reap some or all of the proceeds, the institute says.
The Sheriff's Office, which typically does not comment when it's named in pending litigation, did not respond to a request for additional information about the Terrell incident.
Terrell's complaint alleges that the sheriff's deputy had no legal right to seize anything from him because he was not charged with having committed any crime.
Goldstein said the fact that his client was carrying around an unusually large sum of money is not evidence that a crime was committed.
"He was going to do some banking, and he had gathered it from various sources, and that was the purpose of it — as part of a business transaction," Goldstein said.
Goldstein, who declined to share his client's occupation, said that Terrell's job status is irrelevant to the case.
"Our position is, it doesn't matter what he does or he doesn't do. The situation is they had no legitimate purpose in taking it," he said, referring to the cash and Terrell's vehicle.
"They found no drugs. They found no guns. And just because someone has a large amount of money on them during the day or any time, you don't have the right either to take the money or the car without a crime being committed," Goldstein said.
"All they have is a bunch of suspicions, and they weren't able to follow through on it. Our positions is, they should have followed through on it before giving his property away."
In addition to the property seized from him, Terrell also is seeking compensation for the $100 a day he said it has cost him to rent a vehicle since Aug. 20.